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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
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In order to discuss Shakespeare's play intelligently you have to make up your mind about (1) Caesar's character, and (2) Caesar's threat to the Roman Republic. Either Caesar deserves to be assassinated, or he doesn't. On your answer hangs the meaning of the play.

On one hand, Caesar is a tyrant whose ambition poses a real danger to the Republic. In that case, the hero of the play is Brutus. On the other hand, Caesar may be vain and arrogant, but he is the only ruler strong enough to hold the Roman Republic together, and a flawed ruler is better than none at all. In that case, Brutus becomes an impractical idealist who is manipulated by a group of scheming politicians.

Whatever your position, there's no doubt that Shakespeare wants to show us the private side of a public man, and to remind us that our heroes are, like the rest of us, only human. In public, Caesar is worshipped like a god; in private, he is superstitious, deaf, and subject to fits of epilepsy (falling sickness). Caesar's public image is like a mask he wears to hide his weaknesses from others and from himself. Yet at the moment of death his mask slips, and we see another Caesar who values friendship above all.

Let's look at Caesar in three different ways.

1. Caesar's personal shortcomings are one reason to remove him from power. Another is his ambition, which threatens to undermine the power of the people and their elected representatives.

It's true that Antony calls Caesar "the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times" (Act III, Scene i, lines 256-257), but why believe Antony-a man blindly devoted to his master, who is so bad a judge of character that he says of Cassius:

Fear him not, Caesar, he's not dangerous;

Act I, Scene ii, line 196

Caesar's refusal to accept the crown is no more than a cynical political gesture to impress the masses. His speech comparing himself to the North Star is the height of arrogance and blasphemy. His refusal to pardon Publius Cimber is the mark of a man incapable of justice or pity. Such a man is a tyrant who knows no limits and deserves to be destroyed.

2. Caesar may be ambitious, but what of it? Ambition in itself is neither good nor bad. Today, in our democratic age, we are suspicious of politicians who seek unlimited power, but the Elizabethans in Shakespeare's time lived under a strong monarchy and would have had no such prejudice against strong rulers. If Shakespeare had wanted to show that Caesar was unfit to rule, he could have found evidence to support that point of view in Elizabethan history books; but nowhere in the play does he show Caesar suppressing civil liberties. Brutus himself is forced to admit:

and, to speak truth of Caesar, I have not known when his affections swayed More than his reason.

Act II, Scene i, lines 19-21

A politician should be judged for his accomplishments, not for his private life. Even if Caesar is inflexible, the times demand such behavior.

In his personal life, Caesar is considerate to his wife, courteous to the conspirators, and generous to the Roman people. He may be vain, but he has something to be vain about. Friends and enemies alike praise his courage and his accomplishments on the battlefield-can they all be wrong?

3. Caesar may be neither a hero nor a villain, but, like people in real life, a mixture of both. Educated theater-goers in Shakespeare's time had this double image of Caesar, and Shakespeare may have enjoyed reinforcing and undercutting their preconceptions without ever resolving them.

Shakespeare had one other reason to make Caesar a mixture of good and evil: if Caesar were too noble, Brutus would become a simple villain; if Caesar were too evil, Brutus would become a simple hero. In either case the moral dilemma raised by the assassination would no longer exist.

How you yourself react to Caesar will perhaps say as much about you as it says about him. People with a strong need for political order in their lives may want to defend him. Those of you with a more democratic faith in the individual may prefer to see him as a threat to the people, and sympathize with Brutus.

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Barron's Booknotes-Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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